Your NPR news source
Chicago police

Chicago police respond to a shooting in March.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Five of Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s public safety promises — and obstacles

The Chicago mayoral election was dominated by one issue above all others: crime. Chicagoans are contending with everything from CTA robberies to a three-year gun violence surge that is only starting to wane. Related policing issues facing the city also include CPD abuses, breakdowns in police-community trust, and the consent decree, a massive overhaul of the Police Department under federal oversight.

As Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson prepares to take office, here are five ways he has promised to improve public safety — and some challenges he will face in getting there.

Promise 1: Add 200 detectives

Johnson’s public safety plan promises that his initial steps as mayor will include adding 200 detectives to CPD: “Training and promoting more detectives from the rank and file will make an immediate impact of lowering the caseloads per detective and improving murder clearance rates.”

As of last month, the department had 1,139 detectives, according to figures from Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s office. That’s just shy of the 1,155 that CPD had in late 2018 following a two-year police hiring and promotion spree under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“Our detectives are overwhelmed with the number of cases that they have,” said former deputy chief Eve Gushes, who retired last August from CPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Reform. “Any addition to their ranks would certainly allow them to conduct a more speedy investigation.”

But Gushes and other experts say the most important step for solving more major crimes is strengthening community ties to patrol officers — building the trust that generates the information and cooperation that detectives need.

Gushes said Chicago should use the consent decree to enable officers to “spend time working on their beats, getting to know the people that they serve.”

She said adding the 200 detectives without backfilling the vacated patrol positions could “create a hole at the community level” and make it harder for the next police superintendent: “We’re not able to recruit and train officers at a quick enough pace to sustain having 200 of our beat officers taken out all at one time.”

Another challenge with expanding the Detective Bureau is avoiding a repeat of the expansion under Emanuel. Detective ranks in those years increased by about 240 but white cops got far more than their share of the promotions. The number of Black detectives increased by just 3.

Only 13.4% of CPD detectives are now Black, according to the IG’s office. That percent has been dropping for years.

Promise 2: Pull the plug on ShotSpotter

Another Johnson promise would remove gunfire detection technology installed by a California company known until recently as ShotSpotter.

Since 2012, the company has worked with CPD to mount hundreds of microphones in at least 12 police districts with high rates of gun violence. The technology, now deployed in dozens of cities, uses artificial intelligence to differentiate gunfire from nonlethal noises such as fireworks and thunder.

When everything works, police are alerted instantly and they rush to find the shooters and render aid to victims.

But it’s rare when everything works, according to the Inspector General’s Office. In 2021, the office reported that ShotSpotter seldom leads to documented evidence of gun crimes or recovery of a firearm and has led some CPD members to view more residents as suspects in neighborhoods where ShotSpotter alerts are frequent.

Johnson agrees. His public safety plan promises to pull the plug: “Chicago spends $9 million a year on ShotSpotter despite clear evidence it is unreliable and overly susceptible to human error.”

“This expensive technology played a pivotal role in the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo,” the plan says, referring to a 2021 foot chase on the Southwest Side that began with a ShotSpotter alert.

But the city could be locked into its ShotSpotter contract until February 2024, because Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has quietly extended it by six months, a move first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Beyond that, a poll commissioned by the company last year found 72% of Chicagoans supported the city’s use of gunshot detection. If that number accurately reflects public sentiment, and if Johnson follows through on his promise to cut off ShotSpotter, he could face strong public criticism, especially during the city’s annual summertime shooting surge.

Reached by WBEZ, Johnson’s spokesperson did not answer whether he’ll deactivate the technology any sooner than the contract’s expiration next winter.

Promise 3: Respond to 911 calls with mental health workers instead of cops

Throughout his campaign, Johnson promised to implement the proposals of Treatment Not Trauma, a community campaign to expand the city’s mental health resources and send health staff, instead of police, to 911 calls for mental health help.

The city already has a pilot program to respond to crisis calls with a mental health component. The five Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams operate in a handful of neighborhoods during business hours. In March, the CARE program responded to an average of fewer than three calls to 911 a day, according to city figures. The Treatment Not Trauma campaign calls for an expansion to at least 10 teams operating 24 hours a day.

The campaign, led by some mental health professionals and advocates, also would change the composition of those teams. Some current teams include a police officer, but Treatment Not Trauma teams would only have EMTs, nurses and social workers. The campaigners argue that police often escalate situations, sometimes with deadly consequences. The current CARE teams have already shown promising results for safety. Of the more than 650 calls answered by the teams, none have resulted in an arrest or major injury.

Still, Johnson’s administration would face barriers to eliminating police from CARE teams. The teams have to follow 911 protocols — rules established by Illinois public-health regulators to ensure the teams are prepared to safely respond to the situations they’re walking into. Currently those protocols don’t allow the city to send CARE teams to certain types of calls without a police officer — for example, any calls that involve kicking, spitting or hitting. If the city only wants to operate teams without police, it would have to either limit the call types the teams take or go back to the state for expanded permissions.

Johnson also faces a limited mental health safety net. The mobile teams can respond to people in mental health crises but the responses will be of limited use if the teams can’t funnel people into treatment.

Johnson has promised to reopen six mental health clinics the Emanuel administration closed in 2012. That will require money and is further complicated by a shortage of mental health workers.

Despite the challenges, Johnson told WBEZ he plans to reopen clinics in his first budget: “As I work to unite this city and bring people together, here’s an area that we all agree on — that mental health services are critical.”

Promise 4: Establish new trauma recovery centers

Trauma recovery centers offer a safe space and wrap-around services to people who have suffered trauma. Survivors of violent crime are provided services ranging from therapy to case management to financial assistance. The centers help with paying for food or rent when the trauma has put people in a hole. All at no cost to the patients.

The state of Illinois has increased its grant funding to these clinics, and their numbers have been increasing, including in the Chicago area. However, many of the centers are outside of the city, and none are run by the city.

Johnson’s public safety plan calls for the city to set up trauma centers “in collaboration with the state government.”

Advocates cheered Johnson’s commitment, but said the treatment centers are often focused too narrowly.

“I get the sense from how we talk about these trauma recovery centers that they are predominantly focused on gun violence and community violence, which obviously is super important,” said Madeleine Behr, policy director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. “There does seem to be broadly in the city a lack of recognition of the intersection between gun violence … and gender-based violence.”

The Chicago Tribune reported on a huge increase in domestic violence killings in 2020. And according to The Network: Advocating Against Domestic Violence, in 2021 there was a 64% increase in domestic violence-related shootings in Chicago.

The mayor-elect’s platform specifically mentions serving people harmed by domestic violence in addition to other crimes at the centers.

Maralea Negron, director of policy, advocacy and research for The Network, applauded the inclusion of domestic violence survivors in the trauma center plan. But she said a potential pitfall would be treating survivors of gender-based violence the same as victims of other crimes. If the city is going to welcome these survivors to the centers, they will have to ensure there is specialized care for survivors of gender-based violence, because it “is a very specific type of violence” that requires a specific type of care.

Promise 5: Fully fund Chicago’s Office of Domestic Violence

In his public safety platform, Johnson pledged to ensure the city’s Office on Domestic Violence “has the resources it needs” and to “fully fund” it.

In its mayoral candidate questionnaire, The Network asked Johnson if he would “commit to keeping or increasing general revenue funding for gender-based violence services.” He answered “yes” but did not include a specific dollar pledge.

In recent years, Chicago has spent $30 million-plus annually. Advocates said Johnson needs to at least maintain that level of funding if he wants to keep his promise. The Network has called for the city to commit $50 million per year.

The big problem? 65% — about $20 million — of the city’s recent domestic violence funding came from federal COVID relief dollars.

Advocates said at the very least Johnson needs to make the surge of funding from the COVID dollars permanent. According to The Network, “the need for gender-based violence services remains high.” The advocacy organization points to a steady rise in calls to the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, which handled 32,000 calls in 2021. They say a failure to make the increased funding permanent will mean “providers will experience limited staffing and an inability to meet survivor needs.”

Committing $35 million per year to gender-based violence services in Chicago would be equal to “seven days of the 365-day police budget and would bring Chicago in line with other large cities in funding for gender-based violence prevention and response services,” according to documents from The Network.

Chip Mitchell, Patrick Smith and Shannon Heffernan report on criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow them at @ChipMitchell1, @pksmid and @shannon_h.

The Latest
Robert Crimo III is accused of killing seven people and wounding 48 others in a mass shooting on July 4, 2022.
“Justice for Jai’Mani” and “justice for number seven” were among the rallying cries for the boy who was shot and killed Tuesday outside his home on the Near West Side. No one has been arrested.
The neighborhoods are Austin, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and Little Village.
The inspector general’s office urged Johnson to create a task force aimed at “preventing, identifying, and eliminating extremist and anti-government activities and associations within CPD.”
An advisory commission was supposed to vote on the plan Friday, but couldn’t because not enough lawmakers showed up to the meeting.